Hijacking Quadcopters with a MAVLink Exploit

Not many people would like a quadcopter with an HD camera hovering above their property, and until now there’s no technical resource to tell drone pilots to buzz off. That would require actually talking to a person. Horrors. Why be reasonable when you can use a Raspberry Pi to hijack a drone? It’s the only reasonable thing to do, really.

The folks at shellIntel have been messing around with quads for a while, and have recently stumbled upon a vulnerability in the Pixhawk flight controller and every other quadcopter that uses the MAVLink protocol. This includes the Parrot AR.drone, ArduPilot, PX4FMU, pxIMU, SmartAP, MatrixPilot, Armazila 10dM3UOP88, Hexo+, TauLabs and AutoQuad. Right now, the only requirement to make a drone fall out of the sky is a simple radio module and a computer. A Raspberry Pi was used in shellIntel’s demo.

The exploit is a consequence of the MAVLink sending the channel or NetID used to send commands from the transmitter to the quadcopter in each radio frame. This NetID number is used so multiple transmitters don’t interfere with each other; if two transmitters use the same NetID, there will be a conflict and two very confused pilots. Unfortunately, this also means anyone with a MAVLink radio using the same NetID can disarm a quadcopter remotely, and anyone with a MAVLink radio can tell a quad to turn off, or even emulate the DJI Phantom’s ‘Return to China’ function.

The only required hardware for this exploit is a $100 radio and three lines of code. It is certainly possible to build a Raspberry Pi-based box that would shut down any Pixhawk-equipped quadcopter within radio range, although the folks at shellIntel didn’t go that far just yet. Now it’s just a proof of concept to demonstrate that there’s always a technical solution to your privacy concerns. Video below.

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No, Mounting A Gun To A Quadcopter (Probably) Isn’t Illegal

Earlier this month, [Austin Haghwout] posted a video on YouTube of a remote controlled quadcopter armed with a semiautomatic handgun. While there are no details of this build, it’s safe to say any reasonably sized quadcopter could be armed in such a manner; just strap a pistol to the frame, add a servo, and connect the servo to the RC receiver. We don’t think this is the first time it’s been done, but has garnered the most attention.

There is nothing novel about mounting a handgun to a quadcopter. Anyone with any experience with RC flying could replicate this build, and the only interesting part of watching a video of a quad firing a gun is seeing how the flight controller reacts to the recoil. However, in the pursuit of the exploitation of a fear of technology, this video has gone viral.

The Verge calls it, ‘totally illegal’, while The Christian Science Monitor asks how it is legal. Wired posits it is, ‘most likely illegal,’ while CNET suggests, ‘surely this isn’t legal.’ In a rare break from reality, YouTube commentors have demonstrated a larger vocabulary than normal, calling the build, ‘felonious.’

With so many calling this build illegal, there should be someone who could point out the laws or regulation [Austin Haghwout] is violating. This information is surprisingly absent. In a Newsweek post, a representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is quoted as saying:

“ATF has reviewed the video with local law enforcement and other federal agencies. It does not appear that the device violates any existing firearms regulations…”

The Associated Press reports no state laws were broken by [Austin]. With the BAFTE and Connecticut State Police both signing off on this build, the issue of jurisdiction becomes more pronounced. How, exactly, is a gun mounted on a quad illegal?

The answer, as with all things involving quadcopters, comes from the FAA. We could find no regulations explicitly banning handguns on remote controlled quadcopters, but of all stories and posts on [Austin]’s handiwork, this is the closest anyone has come to providing the framework for calling this build illegal:

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.

-FAR Part 91 Sec. 91.15

That’s it. The closest anyone has come to providing a reason why a semiauto quadcopter is illegal: because the cartridge (and bullet), are ‘dropped’ from a quad. The Feds charging [Austin] with “dropping” a bullet from a quadcopter is like taking down [Al Capone] for Income Tax Evasion. The difference being that [Al] was a notorious criminal who had obviously harmed a large swath of people and [Austin] doesn’t seem to be harming anyone.

Although [Austin]’s video of a gun toting quad is only fourteen seconds long, a few reasonable assumptions can be made about his small experiment in flying firepower. The video shows the quad hovering a few feet above the ground. This is surely allowed by the recently published safety guidelines for sUAS users. The gun itself appears to be firing into an offscreen hillside – a sensible precaution. If the only justification for the FAA’s investigation of [Austin]’s video is FAR 91.15, he’s on easy street.

“Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

usdaThere is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.

The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.

Rules and Regulations

In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the knowbeforeyoufly.org website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Tracking Rhinos With UAVs

For his Hackaday Prize project, [tlankford01] is using RC planes and UAVs as an anti-poaching system for rhinos and elephants. It’s a laudable goal for sure, but the conditions of this use case make for some very interesting engineering challenges.

The design goals [tlandford] has set are relatively simple for a bush plane, but building a plane that can fly 200km with a 6kg payload and return to base is a challenge that isn’t usually taken up by RC enthusiasts. For this project, [tlandford] is using an entirely 3D printed airframe, with living hinges printed right into the control surfaces. That in itself is pushing the limits of amateur airframes, but [tlandford] isn’t stopping there.

This UAV system will be completely automated, with a single ground control system taking care of controlling a swarm of planes, pointing a tracking antenna, and connecting to the Internet for observation or control from anywhere in the world.

The project that has seen a lot of improvement since it was entered in last year’s Hackaday Prize. The addition of a completely 3D printed airframe is a big one, and replacing the RVJet with something that looks a bit more like a glider should increase the loiter times over the target. There’s a video of the Icarus flying available below. If you also have a UAV project entered in The Hackaday Prize, there is now one obvious choice of what music you should use.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Ducted Fan Drone Flies

A while back, we wrote about the ducted fan, single rotor, VTOL drone that [Armin Strobel] was working on. It wasn’t quite finished then, and hadn’t got off the ground yet. He’s posted an update, and from the looks of it, he’s made tons of progress, including a first flight with successful take-off and landing.

The successful flight was no coincidence. Tuning any kind of ‘copter is a tricky business. Handling them manually during testing could be outright dangerous. So he built two different test-beds from pieces of wood, some 3D printed parts and bearings. One lets him mount the drone and tune its pitch (and roll), while the other lets him tune the yaw parameters. And just like they do in wind tunnel testing, he fixed short pieces of yarn at various points on the air frame to check for turbulence. Doing this also gave him some insight into how he could improve the 3D printed air-frame in the next iteration. He repeated the tests on the two test beds, going back and forth to make sure the tuning parameters were not interfering with each other. He also modified the landing gear to improve stability during take-off and landing and to prevent tipping. [Armin] is using the PixHawk PX4 for flight control and a BeagleBone Black for higher level functions and control.

Once the first flight showed that the drone could do stable flight, he attached a Go-Pro and recorded some nice video on subsequent flights. The next steps are to fine tune the flight control parameters to ensure stable hovering with position hold and way point following. He may also 3D print an improved air-frame. For details about the build, check out our earlier blog post on the Ducted Fan Drone. Check out the two videos below – one showing the first flight of the Drone, and the other one about the test beds being used for tuning.

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Autonomous Drones Now Carry People

There are a handful of companies trying to build the first autonomous car, but this project makes us think that they all might be heading in the wrong direction. [Thorstin] wanted to use a quadcopter to transport people, and built a working prototype of an autonomous quadcopter-esque vehicle that is actually capable of lifting a person.

The device isn’t actually a quadcopter anymore; that wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift. It has sixteen rotors in total, making it a sexdecacopter (we suppose). This setup generates 282 pounds of static thrust, which as the video below shows, is enough to lift an average person off of the ground along with the aluminum alloy frame and all of the lithium ion batteries used to provide power to all of those motors.

With the PID control system in place, the device is ready for takeoff! We like hobby projects that suddenly become life-sized and rideable, and we hope to see this one fully autonomous at some point too. Maybe soon we’ll see people ferried from waypoint to waypoint instead of being driven around in their ground-bound autonomous cars.

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The Shady World of Drone Racing

No one noticed the two men in the alley as the darkness of midnight approached – their long, black trench coats acting like a soldier’s camouflage.

“You got the goods?”

“Yeah, these are hot man…super fast..check this…”

The bark of a police siren broke their whispered conversation like a shattering glass, causing the two men to briefly freeze in their steps.

“Johnny B. got busted last week…did you hear?”

“No way man! What he get busted for?”

“Drone racing man…drone racing.”

Deep within the shadows of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated factories on the outskirts of Australian suburbia, the telltale buzz of numerous drones can be heard. Zipping to and fro at speeds upwards of 60km/h, these drones are not just flying. They’re racing each other. The operators use specialized FPV goggles that allow them to see the raceway in real time. This method, unfortunately, puts them on the wrong side of the law.

The dated laws governing drones in Australia are similar to those in the US, which were written for the radio controlled plane industry. While they technically forbid any flying outside of line-of-site, the Australian Civil Aviation Authority seems to be OK with the drone racing so long as it’s done indoors and poses no risk to people or property.

Know of any drone racing in your country? Is it legal? Do people do it anyway? Let us know in the comments.